MONTERREY, Mexico – A Texas man and his girlfriend were sentenced to nine years in prison for recruiting Mexican women to give birth in the U.S. and sell their babies to couples there, a judge said Wednesday.
Amado Torres, of Harlingen, Texas, and Maria Isabel Hernandez, of Mexico, paid women up to $3,000 for their newborns, Tamaulipas state Judge Jose Luis Bazan told The Associated Press. He handed down their sentences for child trafficking on Jan. 29.
Bazan said the pregnant women were smuggled into the United States to give birth so their babies would be U.S. citizens, making them more easily adoptable.
Torres, 65, denies the charges and will appeal, said Eduardo Cabanas, his defense lawyer.
Three women who testified that they sold their babies to the pair out of economic desperation were sentenced to six years in prison. They said Hernandez, 26, helped look after them during their pregnancies in the United States.
One of the women, Claudia Pantoja, said she was five months pregnant when she agreed to sell her baby in November 2007, according to court secretary Mario Alberto Cervantes. Pantoja said she and Hernandez met Torres a month later at a house in Harlingen where two other pregnant women were waiting to give birth.
Torres and Hernandez received up to $13,000 from U.S. couples for the babies, Cervantes said.
Bazan said the formal accusation against Torres mentions at least six babies but the pair likely sold more. Investigators believe they had been operating their trafficking ring since 2005.
None of the babies involved have been found, Bazan said.
Torres and Hernandez were arrested in May 2008 in Rio Bravo, a border town in Tamaulipas. Police said they found the couple at a house with an infant and a notebook with a list of babies.
Torres, originally from Puerto Rico, initially claimed he was a missionary helping pregnant mothers unable to pay for their medical expenses and the costs of raising a child.
In a 2008 interview with The Monitor newspaper, Torres said he was engaged in legitimate efforts to help the women and any money that may have changed hands came from adoptive parents looking to ensure prenatal care.
Cabanas said Wednesday that Torres' initial statements to prosecutors were made under duress and authorities failed to provide him access to U.S. consular representation. He said his client now denies having anything to do with the babies.
Cabanas also said investigators lack evidence of any money Torres and Hernandez allegedly earned from the trafficking ring.
"There are a flood of irregularities," Cabanas said. "I think this sentence is very illogical."